Early grade learning assessments stimulate Sierra Leone to enhance foundational reading, writing and arithmetic skills

Children who learn to read and write and acquire strong basic literacy and numeracy skills in the first grade years are more likely to be successful throughout their academic lives. Literacy levels are also related to economic, civic, health and other quality of life standards for individuals and entire nations.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a global consensus that education systems were not delivering the quality education required to ensure that children acquired the necessary basic skills. The Education Commission Report (2020) estimated that 90 percent of children in low-income countries, 50 percent of children in middle-income countries, and 30 percent of children in high-income countries fail to master basic secondary-level skills. necessary growth. Additionally, it is estimated that 53 percent of children in low- and middle-income countries cannot read proficiently by age 10. Unfortunately, Sierra Leone falls into this category.

But Sierra Leone has a renewed vision for improving literacy and numeracy in the early grades. The Education Sector Plan 2022-2026 is closely aligned with the objectives of SDG 4 on education. The country is sponsoring a comprehensive Early Childhood Development (ECD) program that focuses on increasing access to pre-school education by adding at least one year of pre-primary education to the public school system by building more ECD classrooms, and training teachers in the existing methodology on play, and distribute over 20,000 ECD illustrated books accompanied by training on how to use them. This is complemented by the use of radio-based teaching software to support learning and teaching training.

The state has also set clear goals for its national literacy program to get students to read more often, to reduce the number of non-readers, and to increase the percentage of able readers who can understand written texts. At the same time, the country is moving towards teaching mastery of basic concepts in mathematics.

To help advance the country’s foundational learning strategy, in 2021 Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Basic and Secondary Education, with support from the Global Partnership for Education and the United Nations Children’s Fund, conducted national early grade reading and mathematics assessments to assess students’ core competencies in literacy and numeracy.

The assessment was conducted in 260 schools in all 16 districts of the country with the aim of collecting findings to address methodological issues at the school, district and national levels that affect children’s learning. Information collected from 476 teachers, 244 principals, and 4,729 students (50 percent girls) in grades two and four revealed some methodological motivations that support children’s ability to learn arithmetic, reading and writing.

What does the evaluation reveal?

Data from the Grade 1 Reading Assessment application across Africa compared to the 2021 study results in Sierra Leone show that Sierra Leone is in the upper half of countries, indicating lower zero scores than other countries, particularly those running English language assessments (Fig. 1). (A zero-score means a student has failed to provide any answer to a question.) The data also show progress from 2014 to 2021 (Figure 2), showing a significant decrease in zero-score performance and the proportion of non-readers nearly halving on the oral fluency test.

In literacy, oral reading fluency scores indicate that students progress as readers from grade 2 (P2) to primary 4 (P4). However, although students are increasingly able to identify words and read text fluently, their understanding of those words and content remains limited, as does their conceptual ability to apply the skills they have learned in other tasks.

Figure 2. Proportion of learners with a score of zero in early grade reading assessments, 2014 and 2021

Regarding arithmetic, students showed significantly higher skills on basic and procedural math tasks, versus significantly lower skills on conceptual tasks (see Figure 3). Their expertise in math education is often more about memorizing facts and rules than developing strategies for finding answers to problems.

Figure 3. Percentage of learners with a score of zero in early grade math assessments, 2014 and 2021

How are the key findings driving Sierra Leone’s agenda for building basic skills for children?

The Sierra Leone assessment examined factors that affected student learning, such as teacher qualification, training, and preparedness in foundational learning. The evaluation showed that teachers with the certification qualification showed more positive actions when teaching literacy than those without (although there was no similar effect in teaching numeracy). This finding has benefited the country’s Teacher Manpower Management Strategy, indicating the importance of in-service teacher training and certification to ensure a steady supply of skilled teachers for the foundational literacy agenda.

The national assessment also showed that learners’ experience in teaching literacy and mathematics is more about memorizing facts and grammar than about developing strategies for finding answers to problems. This has led to other important recommendations about educational and pedagogical interventions that help teachers raise literacy and numeracy outcomes to develop learners in line with grade-level expectations in the country. Sierra Lone uses data in the teacher training agenda to help teachers develop a better understanding of how children acquire literacy and numeracy and how to enable students to acquire essential skills, align teaching instructions to the level of learners, monitor performance and provide remedial work. Work for improvement.

Importantly, the study also found that students with no preschool education struggled to acquire basic skills in the early years of elementary school, resulting in poor performance and slower overall growth. As a result, Sierra Leone has made one year of pre-primary education mandatory as part of its National Integrated Early Childhood Development Policy 2021.

With this focus on evidence-based education policy actions, Sierra Leone is moving in the right direction with regard to its national literacy and numeracy programming. A large-scale, follow-up national assessment is scheduled for 2023 to understand the gains made during this time period. Key considerations for maintaining and increasing the frequency of national assessment are to call on the government to allocate dedicated resources in the annual budget for learning assessment and to adopt/adapt existing real-time monitoring methodologies that can accompany teaching and learning.

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